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Posts from — January 2009

Mobile phones join the rural radio mix


“A little over a year ago I found myself sitting in the San Francisco offices of an international humanitarian NGO. Their main focus at the time was a major human-rights treaty, and they wanted advice about mobilizing rural communities to lobby their governments to ratify it. There was clearly great potential for a mobile phone-based solution, and they wanted me to help them understand how text messaging – and FrontlineSMS in particular – could be of use.

So, it came as something of a surprise when I recommended they look more closely at rural radio instead. Although I’m a great fan of mobile phone technology, it isn’t by default the best tool for reaching out to rural communities. Radio – far from being outdated and irrelevant – remains a powerful, relevant and far-reaching medium. Unrivalled, in fact.

Radio stations existed in Africa long before many of its countries reached independence. Over the last twenty to thirty years, however, liberation of the airwaves in many of these countries has opened the door to a new wave of broadcasters including commercial, private, community and public radio stations. This expansion has created some new and exciting opportunities.”

kiwanja’s latest PC World article looks at the potential of mobile phones and rural radio stations to jointly deliver relevant, timely and useful information to rural populations in developing countries, and allow listeners to engage with radio programmes in a new way. Projects highlighted include initiatives in Africa by Farm Radio International and Developing Radio Partners.

Head on over to the PC World website for the full article.

January 30, 2009   2 Comments

Sitcoms+SMS: Tackling HIV/AIDS in the DRC

In this, the first of a series of guest posts on how FrontlineSMS is being used around the world, Becky McLaughlin – Marketing Director at Rien que la Vérité – talks about their current use of the platform, and the impact it has had on their work

“Based in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rien que la Vérité was born in 2006 when some of the finest musicians in the Congo united to produce a CD of songs speaking against the spread of HIV/AIDS. Since 2006, the Rien que la Vérité platform has produced 14 music videos, a documentary, and an all-day stadium concert. In its present incarnation, Rien que la Vérité is touching the lives of the people of the Congo through their television screens as they follow the lives of a Kinois family on a locally-produced TV drama.


Rien que la Vérité – the TV series – launched nationally on November 30th, 2008 and first implemented FrontlineSMS in the airing of its second episode on December 14th. Each episode broadcast is accompanied by short talk-show segments during which a host introduces music clips, talks to well-known musicians and actors, and interviews representatives from local NGOs and organizations whose message dovetails with a theme introduced in the show.

During the December 14th show, the audience was invited to participate by sending an SMS with the name of their favorite character. The responses were collected using FrontlineSMS. This simple first step allowed Rien que la Vérité to test the software and to begin an exploration of our audience’s perceptions and preferences. As the show continues we plan to introduce more simple polls that will help tailor the show to the audience’s tastes, and give viewers a sense of ownership of the program.


This, however, is the most basic use we foresee. We are now launching a drive to support fan clubs, so that people who watch the show can find each other, meet, and talk about the show and the topics it introduces – a process that will begin to normalize conversation about HIV/AIDS. We’ll use FrontlineSMS to collect contact information from interested fans, then broadcast messages with times and locations for local club gatherings. We also intend to use FrontlineSMS in our research for measuring the impact the show has on our target audience. We’ll send out questions via SMS to fans before and after each show, measuring any changes in attitude, knowledge, or self-reported practices due to exposure to the show’s messaging.

FrontlineSMS will be a critical tool in our goal to entertain and educate. Like its television format, Rien que la Vérité’s future development must remain grassroots, and FrontlineSMS is an excellent vehicle for this.”

Becky McLaughlin
Marketing Director
Rien que la Vérité

January 28, 2009   98 Comments

Earth and sun and moon


Well, not quite. But it is another personal charging option to add to the solar and hand-crank mix (thanks to Guy Yeomans for pointing this in my direction over lunch last week).

The HYmini is a cool compact wind-powered charger with an internal lithium ion battery (there’s also an optional solar panel and hand-crank attachment). They’re still a little pricey, coming in at around the $50 mark, but I can imagine as they get cheaper seeing them attached to bikes – the perfect power solution for Bodafones and other bicycle-centric phone service providers in developing countries (photos, below, from kiwanja’s Mobile Gallery).


Motion chargers would be the final piece of the jigsaw, but are still a little way off. Trevor Baylis prototyped a pair of “electric shoes” back in 2001, walking across the Namib desert to prove that you could charge a small battery – enough to power a radio or mobile phone – through the action of walking. Nothing may have come of that, but he clearly got other people thinking. Expect announcements later this year.

January 26, 2009   10 Comments

A glimpse into social mobile’s long tail

Although I’ve only been writing about the social mobile long tail for a couple of years, the thinking behind it has developed over a fifteen year period where, working on and off in a number of African countries, I’ve witnessed at first hand the incredible contribution that some of the smallest and under-resourced NGOs make in solving some of the most pressing social and environmental problems. Most of these NGOs are hardly known outside the communities where they operate, and many fail to raise even the smallest amounts of funding in an environment where they compete with some of the biggest and smartest charities on the planet.

Long tail NGOs are generally small, extremely dedicated, run low-cost high-impact interventions, work on local issues with relatively modest numbers of local people, and are staffed by community members who have first-hand experience of the problems they’re trying to solve. What they lack in tools, resources and funds they more than make up with a deep understanding of the local landscape – not just geographically, but also the language, culture and daily challenges of the people.

After fifteen years it should come as no surprise to hear that most of my work today is aimed at empowering the long tail, as it has been since kiwanja.net came into being in 2003, followed by FrontlineSMS a little later in 2005. Of course, a single local NGO with a piece of software isn’t going to solve a wider national healthcare problem, but how about a hundred of them? Or a thousand? The default position for many people working in ICT4D is to build centralised solutions to local problems – things that ‘integrate’ and ‘scale’. With little local ownership and engagement, many of these top-down approaches fail to appreciate the culture of technology and its users. Technology can be fixed, tweaked, scaled and integrated – building relationships with the users is much harder and takes a lot longer. Trust has to be won. And it takes even longer to get back if it’s lost.

My belief is that users don’t want access to tools – they want to be given the tools. There’s a subtle but significant difference. They want to have their own system, something which works with them to solve their problem. They want to see it, to have it there with them, not in some ‘cloud‘. This may sound petty – people wanting something of their own – but I believe that this is one way that works.

Here’s a video from Lynman Bacolor, a FrontlineSMS user in the Philippines, talking about how he uses the software in his health outreach work. What you see here is a very simple technology doing something which, to him, is significant.

Watch this video on the FrontlineSMS Community pages

In short, Lynman’s solution works because it was his problem, not someone elses. And it worked because he solved it. And going by the video he’s happy and proud, as he should be. Local ownership? You bet.  \o/

Now, just imagine what a thousand Lynman’s could achieve with a low cost laptop each, FrontlineSMS and a modest text messaging budget?

January 22, 2009   55 Comments

Low(er) cost computing

In the middle of everything else that’s going on right now, we’re working to get the latest FrontlineSMS ready for launch. Among a few of the more minor changes (bug fixes and additional language support, for example) this new release will see the inclusion of FrontlineForms, a fully integrated SMS-driven data collection tool. Although it’s been ready for some time, we’ve been busy getting the core system up to scratch before adding the first of a range of exciting new functionality (the ability to do MMS – multimedia messaging – comes later this year courtesy of our Hewlett funding).

Of course, none of this is of any use if you can’t afford a computer to run anything on. As part of our goal to lower the barrier to entry for prospective FrontlineSMS users, we have plans to develop USB stick and mobile versions of the software. More news on that in the coming weeks and months.


In the meantime, thanks to great forward planning from Masabi – our developers – FrontlineSMS will already run on a range of emerging low-cost computers. Here’s the latest build (1.5.2) being tested on an Acer One (it’s also running happily on the even lower-cost EEE PC). This kind of set up – a low-cost computer, a GSM modem and a handful of low-end mobile phones – forms the backbone to our thinking of what an “SMS Hub in a Box” might look like.

We’re hoping to do something with that idea when we have a little spare time on our hands.

January 21, 2009   34 Comments

What’s the frequency, Kenneth?

This is a diagram for Bushmail, a system which allows users in very remote locations to send email using high-frequency radio signals. No need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any infrastructure.


A wire strung up over a tree is enough to act as a transmitter/receiver, and a car battery and a solar panel enough to power the whole thing. Used quite widely among the conservation community, could this be the ideal data/email solution for an ‘off-network’ African village?motorola1
This is a Motorola walkie-talkie. With a range of approximately ten square kilometres, these radios allow two-way voice communication without the need for a mobile signal, no need for cell towers and no need for any additional infrastructure. An ideal voice solution for communication within and around a remote African village?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about intermediate technology, the ‘other’ name for appropriate technology but one which, going by my thinking, promises more of a bridge to an “optimum technology solution” rather than one trying to be an out-and-out replacement for it. A stop-gap, in other words. I’ve also been thinking about how people communicate within rural communities. When we talk about connectivity, who are we trying to connect people to? In my latest PC World article – “Where walkie-talkies dare” – I ask:

Imagine, say, 75% of a rural community’s communication needs were local, in other words among itself, and most of that community lived in, say, a 10- or 15-square-kilometre area. You could argue that a for-profit mobile network, likely run by a diesel-powered tower, is an inappropriate and over-the-top technology solution. Other technologies already exist that could do the job, technologies that don’t operate on a pay-per-use basis and don’t need costly infrastructure to work

If you want two great examples of these kinds of technologies, just look up.

Despite the spectacular advance of mobile, large swathes of some of the more remote communities in the developing world still remain disconnected – not just from us, but also from each other. While mobile technology is widely regarded by many as the ultimate solution, many communities stand little chance of getting on the radar of the “mobile for development” community until they firstly get on the radar of the mobile operators, and a tower appears somewhere in or near their village. Although exciting things happen when towers appear, I’d argue that waiting years for one to come is probably unnecessary. Turning again to my PC World article:

Right now, a traders cooperative in a rural village could easily equip itself with walkie-talkies and exchange information on commodity prices and produce availability, to organise transport and to share storm forecasts. Health care workers covering the village and nearby area could use them to communicate and technically coordinate a health care network. And why not have Village Phone Operators (VPOs) with walkie-talkies rather than mobile phones, who can sell the use of their devices for a small fee, with a near 100% profit margin? Maybe this is a new model Grameen Phone could do something with?

I’d be fascinated to hear if anyone has carried out research on the local communication needs of rural communities. How much of what they need to say is predominantly local? If my ‘grab-it-out-of-the-air’ figure of 75% is even remotely close – and we put any technology snobbery aside for a moment – then I think there could be very real opportunities to implement some very effective intermediate technology solutions within some of these communities.

So, my questions are these: Are there projects out there implementing these solutions right now? Are they working? What other (better?) options are available? What do the communities think of them? Maybe this is all just a crazy idea? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

January 19, 2009   12 Comments

The “long tail” revisited

Four years ago was a very lonely time. Not for me personally, understand, but in the social mobile space. The wider non-profit world was just beginning to take a serious interest in what the technology had to offer, and in 2004 I’d just co-authored one of the earlier reports – funded by the Vodafone Group Foundation – on the use of mobile technology for conservation and development. To give some context, these were the days when it was widely believed that “poor people in developing countries” would never be able to afford a phone, and the days when concrete case studies on the application of mobile technology for positive social and environmental change were few and far between. Most evidence was anecdotal. A revised report would look very different today, but with one exception – many of the conclusions would likely still stand. If that’s the case, how far have we really come?

Four years ago this week I came up with the concept of a laptop-based group messaging hub. The software I ended up developing is better known today as FrontlineSMS (“ProjectSMS” was the working title for the first few months). When I eventually got the resources together to write the first version in the summer of 2005, there was zero chance of reinventing any wheels. The “social mobile applications” shop was quite literally bare. After extensive research for a project I had been working on with South Africa National Parks (SANParks), there were simply no appropriate technology mobile solutions they could easily pick up and run with. The situation seemed crazy, and I had a hunch that SANParks were not alone in their need for an appropriate, portable, GSM-based communications tool. The rest is history, as they say.

Things are not quite so lonely today and 2008 – for me, at least – goes down as the year things really began to change. For what seemed like an age, FrontlineSMS was one of the few appropriate technology-based mobile tools aimed at – and openly and freely available to – the grassroots non-profit community. For a while it was the only one. It was also likely the first to be developed specifically with the NGO sector in mind – most other solutions were commercial offerings which found their way into the hands of NGOs, quite often the larger international variety with the funds, expertise and resources to use them. The frustration for me was that – until last year, at least – many of the emerging ‘non-profit’ mobile solutions seemed to be following that same model.

Enter “The Social Mobile Long Tail”, my attempt at mapping out the social mobile applications space (you can read the original post, which explains the thinking in detail, here).

The basic rationale behind it was this. The majority of emerging mobile solutions, platforms or tools (call them what you will) were settling in the red area, and as such were technically and financially out-of-reach of many grassroots NGOs, many of whom sit in the green space. Tools at the higher end of the graph are generally more complex, server-based systems aimed a multinational NGOs or government departments. Tools in the lower end are simple, low-cost, appropriate and easily replicable solutions. My experiences working with NGOs in Africa over the past fifteen years has strongly influenced and steered the focus of my work towards the long tail, and I would have it no other way.

But let’s just destroy a few myths for a minute. There are many out there. Here’s my top three (feel free to add to these in the comments section below).

Firstly, wherever your tool sits on the graph, there is no right or wrong place for it. It’s all about the context of the user. There is just as much a need for $1 million server-based, high bandwidth solutions as there are for free, SMS-only tools. In your typical scenario, national governments would likely go for the former, and grassroots NGOs for the latter, but not always. Both are valid, and tools shouldn’t ever be described as “being better” than another because of it. This is a big mistake. We need there to be solutions all along the tail so that the users have a healthy applications ecosystem to dip into, whoever and wherever they may be. If you’re trying to park a car into a small space, a Mini is much better than a Rolls Royce.

Secondly, let’s not get all hooked up on scale. Just because a tool in the long tail might not run an international mobile campaign does not make it irrelevant. Just as a long tail solution might likely never run a higher-end project, expensive and technically complex solutions would likely fail to downscale enough to run a small communications network for farmers from a small NGO office with no mains electricity, for example.

Thirdly, we don’t yet have any complete, polished mobile tools. I would argue that everything that we see in the social mobile applications ecosystem today is “work in progress”, and it will likely stay that way for a very long time. Speaking with my FrontlineSMS hat on, I’d say we’re probably only about 40% there with that solution right now. There is much to do, and the mobile technical landscape never stands still. Our challenge is how we all move with it, how we stay relevant, and how we all work together to share technical resources and know-how. A fragmented mobile landscape is a problem for all of us.

There have been many positive blog posts calling 2009 the “Year of Mobile”. I think they could be right. I also think 2009 is going to be the “Year of the Searcher” (see my earlier blog post). As I argued back then, let’s never forget it’s the users of our tools who we answer to. Social change happens on the ground, often through them, and not online.

For the first time in four years things don’t feel quite so lonely. I for one am hugely honoured to be working in a space alongside some of the most dedicated and talented people in the mobile and development fields, all of whom are trying to apply a range of practical solutions – all the way along the “social mobile long tail” – to some of the most pressing problems in the world today. We have a great opportunity in front of us if we stick together, remain focussed, and do not lose sight of the big picture.

After all, we don’t want to be reading blog posts in twelve months time calling 2010 the “Year of Mobile”, do we?

[You can read a Haitian Creole translation of this post, courtesy of Susan Basen, here].

January 14, 2009   37 Comments

Building our Clinton Commitment

Those following kiwanja’s work will remember last September’s invitation to the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, where we proposed the “FrontlineSMS Ambassadors Programme” as our 2009/2010 Commitment. This Commitment was announced live on-stage during the ‘Poverty and Information’ workshop on the final day, and I also had the huge honour of meeting President Clinton in person, who presented me with our Commitment certificate.


Of course, now the work really starts. Since New York much has happened, including the receipt of a significant grant from the Hewlett Foundation. Portions of this funding will be used in the coming weeks to kick off the first phase of the Ambassadors Programme, which is part of wider efforts to promote the use of FrontlineSMS among the NGO community. This first initiative will be based around Josh Nesbit’s innovative health-based efforts in Malawi, and Josh – who will be project managing the work – will provide updates nearer the time via his blog and Twitter feed.

Future initiatives will take in other key target areas where FrontlineSMS has shown its versatility. These include agriculture, education, conservation and human rights, among others. For regular updates feel free to subscribe to the blog RSS or FrontlineSMS Twitter feeds.

January 9, 2009   26 Comments

Let there be light. And water. And education

At first glance you’d be forgiven for thinking it was another UN Millennium Village, part of the Geoffrey Sachs poverty alleviation experiment. It’s not, but it does sound strikingly similar (you know, take a village of poor, impoverished Africans and bring them ‘development’). Whether you agree with the approach or not – and there’s been plenty of debate – it does seem to be growing in popularity, perhaps as a result of frustration in large, top-heavy, top-down global efforts whose goals are totally unrealistic and where success is much harder to measure than failure is to see. William Easterly‘s book, “The White Man’s Burden”, covers this well. So, rather than trying to heal the world, the idea is you try to heal a village or two and take it from there.

This latest experiment (well, it’s a year old now) centres around a newspaper appeal for a village in northeast Uganda called Katine. Reading through, many of the project objectives seem worthy enough – access to clean water, healthcare, education and so on – but the headline the Guardian chose doesn’t do anybody justice, least of all the inhabitants of Katine. “Can we, together, help one African village out of the middle ages?” it reads. For many people this perception is an ongoing frustration. If I wasn’t so interested in the topic I’d probably have stopped reading just there, as might many people at Amref (a leading partner in the project), whose staff happens to be over 90% African. That level of local ownership though is encouraging, as are the projects aims to “take advantage of – and build on – existing social and economic networks as well as traditional and indigenous knowledge”. This is probably why the newspaper decided to throw its weight behind the idea last year, and why Barclays Bank followed with a couple of million dollars (in today’s economic environment it’s less likely they’d do that now).

It will be interesting to see if the Guardian can hold their readers attention long enough to see this three year project through, although one year on it’s still gobbling column inches. Whatever happens, though, the increasing shift towards smaller-scale – and therefore more likely sustainable – initiatives, such as Katine (and maybe even the UN Millennium Villages), does present us with a different model from the one tried and tested with so little success since the 1970′s.

All we now need do is work a little harder on those headlines.

January 6, 2009   3 Comments

Dispelling the myth?

I spent the best part of spring and summer ’99 working on my anthropology dissertation, passionately arguing that anthropologists had been wrongly excluded from much of the earlier global conservation process. The rationale behind my several-thousand word essay was that the view of indigenous peoples as ‘outside of nature’, or ‘a blot on the landscape’, with no place in the growing world view of pristine, natural environments was wrong. There seemed to be, after all, plenty of examples of indigenous peoples living in harmony with their environments, and that humans weren’t always a destructive force.

But maybe they were.

My three years at Sussex University studying a blend of development issues and social anthropology allowed me to carefully develop my thinking and combine two of my three passions in life (the third being technology). So, it is with great irony that a decade later I find myself reading a book which squarely blames indigenous peoples for many of the the mega-fauna extinctions in their environments. And the catalyst for this destruction? Technology.

In “Techno-Cultural Evolution“, author William McDonald Wallace highlights the rise of hunter-gatherer kill-offs with the rise in the use of technologies – hunting technologies such as spears, knives and bow-and-arrows, and later guns. He also argues that “one of the reasons many people resisted the idea of human causes for the disappearance of the mega-fauna was a romantic notion”. Perhaps there was a little of this clouding my judgment all those years ago, but is it wrong to think that it’s possible for people to live in harmony with their environments? Whatever the case, we certainly seem further away from it today than we ever have been.

William McDonald Wallace also argues that today we’re seeing a new environmental awakening underway. With mega-events such as the global Live Earth ‘gathering’, we could very well see this spearheaded by increased climate change awareness. Once again, the catalyst for our troubles has been a boom in technological innovation and all the energy consumption that goes with it. It is quite astonishing how far we have come in just over a hundred years.

But are we now not in a truly ironic situation where new technologies are being rapidly developed to counteract the negative impacts of others? If things go wrong later this year in Copenhagen – where World leaders meet to discuss the follow-up to the soon-to-expire Kyoto Protocol – then we could see a shift from a policy of applying technology to avoid climate change to one of applying it to help us simply adapt to it.

It’s a poor second choice, and one that just goes to show that, whether you’re a small community in the 21st century about to lose your island home to rising sea levels, or a buffalo in the 19th century roaming the plains of North America, technology can’t always be seen as a good thing.

January 1, 2009   8 Comments